Europe In Sepia by Dubravka Ugresic (translated from the Croatian by David Williams)

Europe in SepiaDubravka Ugresic’s second collection of essays to be translated by Open Letter, Karaoke Culture, enjoyed quite a bit of success on its release in 2011.  Since then Dubravka Ugresic’s fans have been rabidly awaiting the release of her next book.  Though I haven’t read Karaoke Culture… yet. It’s a lapse that will soon be corrected.  A copy was downloaded even before I finished Europe In Sepia.

To truly appreciate the popularity of Ugresic you have to experience her voice.  Direct, ironic and slightly irritated.  As a citizen (or should I say former citizen? what is exactly is the proper terminology?) of the now defunct nation of Yugoslavia she can legitimately claim the status of consummate outsider.  And so she does - with gusto – spending more then a few chapters focusing on the strangeness of her personal situation.   There is an unanticipated absurdity that comes with being a woman without a country.  Ugresic gets to explore something she calls “Yogonostalgia” in one breath and comment on the quasi-fascism of Starbucks in the next.  In a way she’s the Dennis Leary of essayists – raising an eyebrow at her readers as she describes  the idiocy she gleefully observes happening around her.

When a bouncy young Starbucks barista asked my name for the first time,  I articulated it with conviction and clarity.

“Say what?!”

“Du-brav-ka,” I repeated.

“Say whaaaat?!”

I said it again, and then again, just louder. The people in line were already bitching. A short while later, a plastic cup with “Dwbra” scribbled on it arrived. I relayed the episode to a countryman who lives in Los Angeles, where my Starbucks initiation had occurred.  That was twenty years ago.

“Jesus, what a dumbass! Who told you you’ve got to give your own name?!”

To be honest, it hadn’t occurred to me not to.

“I always say Tito!” he fired.

“And?”

“And nothing. I just love hearing: Titoooo, your coffee’s reaaaadyyyy!”

I took his advice and tried using Marx and Engels, but the Starbucks crew didn’t get the message I was sending.  In the end I chose a regular name.  At Starbucks, I’m Jenny.

There’s so much I love about that passage that has nothing to do with the joke (though I love that too): its overall rhythm; the fact that all of Tito’s sentences end in exclamation points; the 3+3 syllabic beats in the closing sentence.  (David William’s translation makes it seem impossible that Ugresic ever meant to express herself in any language other than English). And the fact that the particular essay from which it’s taken is about the career challenges Dubravka Ugresic has dealt, perhaps still deals, with: her name, her gender, her nationality, the fact she’s still alive (dead authors command more respect). All inspired by an innocent question from a child.

Great writing.  Wickedly entertaining.  Not necessarily what you’d expect from a book of essays.

Ugresic  covers all kinds of topics, from Zuccotti Park, to a sketch from the Muppet Show, to the need for a women’s literary canon.  She has a talent for handling serious subjects lightly without trivializing them. The essays on writing, literature and translation were my favorites, but that’s just where my tastes lie.  Europe in Sepia is organized into three sections, dishing out a little something for everyone.  The first section, the titular Europe In Sepia, focuses on the author’s Eastern European ties.  The second,  My Own Little Mission, is oriented more towards pop-culture and social criticism.   In the second section you’ll find an excellent essay Who Is Timmy Monster? (the theme of which is: we are our own worst enemies).  And another on preparing for food shortages -“Thank God I’ve got a copy of the Croatian translation of the famous Apicius cookbook. Flamingo was one of the greatest delicacies on the ancient Roman table and luckily Amsterdam Zoo is full of the elegant pink birds…” – which spurred me to re-read sections of Johnathan Swift’s infamous A Modest Proposal.  Endangered Species, the third and final section, is where the essays on literature are gathered.  Of course there is overlap – all the essays are told from and relate back to the unique Eastern European in exile perspective that is Ugresic’s trademark.  Even Who Is Timmy Monster? is a reference to a Muppet Show sketch that featured Zero Mostel, an American comedian of Eastern European Jewish descent. Europe in Sepia is also  firmly grounded in contemporary culture (something that has me wondering if it will feel dated ten years from now) - Oprah, Angelina Jolie, Hilary Clinton and E.L. James all get a mention.  As does a former dictator.  And vampires. And (my personal favorite), she takes a dig at Quirk books classics* series.

You will become a Dubravka Ugresic fan after picking up one of her books.  Don’t bother fighting it.  It’s as inevitable as passing a Starbucks in Manhattan.

Europe In Sepia is rare in that it contains complex examinations of human nature and still somehow manages to be funny (and never sanctimonious).  This book lingered with me long after I put it down. So don’t be surprised if you find yourself going back to it weeks after finishing, flipping through the pages looking for a passage that’s been teasing at your brain. That’s the whole purpose of a good essay collection – to captivate readers; to make them laugh (if they’re lucky); and, hopefully, to  get everyone thinking about the things that matter.

 

 

Publisher: Open Letter Books, Rochester (2014)
ISBN: 978 1 934824 89 4

 

*In full recognition of my own dorkiness: I just made air quotes at my computer screen. 

 

 

 

 

Shantytown by Cesar Aira (Chris Andrews, translator)

2.

I never know what to expect when I crack open a new César Aira book.  It’s now always love at first sight.  Varamo grew on me over time.  The Miracle Cures of Dr. Aira initially excited me, but now ranks as least favorite.  A reader on Trevor’s (of The Mookse & the Gripes) forums made the comment that in Spanish Aira tends to be hit or miss. That’s not entirely a surprise. Consider the 60+ novellas the author has written and the diversity of topics/genres he covers.  While there is that underlying thread of  “Aira-ness”  to everything I’ve read so far – no two are the same.  Shantytown is no exception.

So what is Shantytown?  If Quesadillas (the novella I wrote about last week)  is all chaos and craziness, then Shantytown is an exercise in  precision.  It lacks the powerful, plot driving first person narrative voice of Villalobos’ book.  Instead, Aira moves his characters through a carefully choreographed (though equally absurd) plot. Coincidences and clichés abound in what amounts to a modern fable – complete with a gentle giant,  nefarious villain and pair of lovers separated by circumstances.  Somehow Aira and his translator Chris Andrews make these old archetypes feel authentic and fresh.

The hero and protagonist, Maxi, is described in the opening pages by the omniscient narrator as a “meathead”.  A good-hearted young man who spends his mornings working out in the gym and his evenings pulling carts for the city’s scavengers (politely referred to as “cardboard collectors”) who move ahead of the garbage trucks looking for items of value.  Their route ends at the shantytown of the title – brightly lit by a web of electric bulbs strung over their makeshift homes.

The shantytown is known as the “Carousel” by the local police.  The name is a reference to the town’s borders which form a circle.  The streets lead into the circle’s center – like the spokes of a wheel. People go there to buy drugs; exactly where is difficult to track because the cars drive around and around the carousel.  The shantytown, its inhabitants and Maxi (because of his evening labors) have been watched by one unsavory officer in particular, whose motives are questionable and methods unscrupulous.  He is obviously up to know good.  Somehow Maxi’s sister and her best friend become involved in the adventure, as does a young housekeeper and a homeless boy Maxi tries to befriend.  The stories of all the characters converge at one point in time and  space – much like the  roads leading into the shantytown – and the story concludes, as we knew it would, with almost everyone living happily ever after.  Though it contains few (if any) plot twists, Shantytown is overall a satisfying read.

That has everything to do with the prose.  This novella contains some of the loveliest imagery since 2006′s Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter.  In both Aira somehow skirts the borders of magical  realism without ever fully setting foot within them.  Like when his characters are left stranded in a diner as the rain floods the city:  “The four of them looked out of the windows: the storm had resumed in all its fury, as if it were starting over again, with a lavish festival of thunder and lightning, and the rain pounding like millions of drums.  They had to rest their feet on the crossbars of the chairs because the tiled floor was under four inches of water.  The waiters were sitting on the bar.  There was nothing to do but wait.”

An even better example is the descriptions of the cardboard collectors’ carts , which Maxi pulls in the evenings:

Every new cart he pulled was different. But in spite of this variety, all of them were suited to the common purpose of transporting loads as quickly and easily as possible. Carts like that could not be bought, or found in the junk that people threw away.  The collectors built them, probably from junk, but the bits and pieces that went into them came from all sorts of things, some of which were nothing like a cart.  Maxi was hardly one to consider things from an aesthetic point of view, least of all these carts; but as it happened he was able to appreciate them more intimately than any observer because he was using them. More than that: he was yoked to them. HE had noticed how they were all different, in height, capacity, length, width, depth, wheel size … in others with wire mesh or canvas or even cardboard. The wheels were from a great variety of vehicles: bicycles, motorcycles, tri-cycles, baby carriages, even cars.  Naturally, no two carts looked the same, and each had its own particular beauty, its value as folk art. This was not entirely new phenomenon. The historians of Buenos Aires had traced the evolution of the city’s carts and their decoration: the ingenious inscriptions and decorative painting (the renowned fileteado). BUt now it was different. This was the nineteen nineties and things had changed. These carts didn’t have inscriptions or painting or anything like that. They were purely functional, and since they were built from assembled odds and ends, their beauty was, in a sense, automatic or objective, and therefore very modern, too modern for any historian to bother with.

Vincent Van Gogh’s “Cafe Terrace At Night”

The more of these little books I read, the more apparent it becomes that  Aira is constructing the geography which his characters inhabit with care.  Miniature worlds bound by finite borders.  Almost claustrophobic and with every detail carefully considered.  Like the carts.  Or the lighting.  In this particular book most of the action takes place in the early morning or evenings.  To convey this twi-lit world Aira seems to rely on a color palette reminiscent of Van Gogh’s painting Café Terrace At Night – shades of blue with pops of yellow.  Yet Aira, himself, would contradict this.

According to Aira, he never edits his own work, nor does he plan ahead of time how his novels will end, or even what twists and turns they will take in the next writing session. He is loyal to his idea that making art is above all a question of procedure. The artist’s role, Aira says, is to invent procedures (experiments) by which art can be made. Whether he executes these or not is secondary; Aira’s business is the plan, not necessarily the result. Why is procedure all-important? Because it is relevant beyond the individual creator. Anyone can use it. (Quoted from The Literary Alchemy of César Aira by   / The Quarterly Conversation) 

If this is true – and I’m always skeptical of claims to divine inspiration that doesn’t require any work  - then César Aira has benefited greatly from being translated. And Chris Andrews may have earned the title of collaborator.  While his Spanish critics seem to feel, like the forum reader, that the quality of Aira’s work is unpredictable – the novellas which  have been translated into English are (with only a few exceptions) remarkable.

Publisher: New Directions, New York (2014)

ISBN: 978 0 8112 1911 2